Conor O'Callaghan is a poet, but his 2004 memoir, Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Irish World Cup Blues, feels more like an investigative account of a crime. While the drama surrounding the Irish captain's departure from World Cup preparations is well-known among footie fans over here, very few of us understand the impact of Roy Keane's actions.
One must understand Ireland, specifically what Roy Keane means to a nation perpetually on the brink of commanding a seat on the world stage, not only in international soccer, but also in global economic terms. The North American point of view, and perhaps that of the world, previous to the boom of the Celtic Tiger, is one of a quaint land of lilting brogues and Guinness. Ireland may be the homeland of so many, yet maintained their second-world status while the rest of Europe and the world leapt forward.
As the World Cup neared, Ireland's rise in global influence inevitably found itself manifested in Ireland's chances in the 2002 World Cup. Ireland may have a second-class domestic league, but players' experience abroad afforded the squad the experience to go far in the finals. Or so Roy Keane, playing for arguably the biggest club, Manchester United, thought.
While Ireland may have differing opinions on Keano and his decision (traitorous knacker vs. a man who stands up for his ideals), there is little argument that the FAI was ill-prepared to compete in Korea and Japan in 2002. Like much of the national team's past, the squad was destined to mediocrity, with the expectation of a congratulations just for showing up. This has been the downfall of Irish soccer according to O'Callaghan, stemming from Jack Charlton's tenure as gaffer.
To an outsider, Keane's fury at the lack of professionalism (a lack of training balls, discipline, and a general "happy to be here" attitude) may seem petulant and egotistical. But it is his single-mindedness that has made him the player he is. Keane is more than known to have little patience with those that do not work as hard as he does, and he communicates this in perhaps less than diplomatic ways.
O'Callaghan does well to capture the anti-Keane sentiment while he struggles to hold onto his support of the embittered captain. Much of his account is intertwined with his family, specifically his young son, who is experiencing not only his first World Cup, but the first time his hero is revealed to be human.
While it may seem like a story unlikely to excite the average footie fan, O'Callaghan's style makes it easy to find yourself drawn into his experience. There really is no comparison to what Keano's departure from the national team meant to Ireland, simply because what Roy Keane meant to the nation is perhaps more than a player has ever meant to a team.